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Documentary 'Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry' shows artist's boldness

Even though he describes his detention in China last year as 'very inhuman,' he's not about to back down, as Alison Klayman's documentary makes clear.

July 31, 2012|By Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

"The tax case is pure fabrication," says Ai, who was barred from court during his appeal. "When they put me in detention they tell me, 'We have to punch you because you did such and such.' They say, 'You try to smash us [by giving interviews to foreign media]. So we want to tell the people you are a liar, you are not trustworthy.' I laughed. I said: 'Do you believe the people who were born in the '80s or '90s will believe you?'"

Ai's comment speaks to his popularity amongChina'sInternet-savvy youth, many of whom find ways to circumvent the government's online censorship and who distrust the state-run media. Although his name is blocked on the popular Chinese micro-blog Weibo, Ai is active on Twitter (his handle is @aiww, though the service is banned in China).

Supporters have shown solidarity through donations, some flown over his studio walls in paper airplanes. In total they added up to 9 million yuan, or about $1.4 million. He calls it a "fairy tale." But now authorities have announced they are also investigating Ai for bigamy and pornography. "[I am like] a disease or some kind of threatening virus," says Ai, who had a child with a woman other than his wife, something he talks about openly in the documentary.

"Never Sorry," unsurprisingly, will not be distributed in China. Klayman, who did not get permission from the Beijing Film Bureau to make the movie, says salvation will come via the Internet. "The best we can expect is that someone will put it online, in the same way that Ai Weiwei puts stuff online.... It seems like the only way," she explains. She adds that she would welcome pirated DVDs to spread the message. "That would be amazing."

With Ai on a one-year probation period (his passport has been confiscated), he's missing a key London show that coincides with the Summer Olympics.

Ai reunited with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron (his collaborators for the Bird's Nest) to design the 12th temporary pavilion for London's Serpentine Gallery, which will be on display during the Summer Games. Because of his travel ban, he submitted designs from his studio in China and has never seen the finished product.

The piece is a reminder of the four years that have passed since the Beijing Olympics, when Ai first expressed vocal criticism of the government (in a famous photograph that went viral, he holds up a middle finger to the Bird's Nest). Asked what he saw as the legacy of the Beijing Games, he scoffs.

"Legacy?" he asks. "What is left for China? China concentrated on medals. The Olympics never produced real happiness. On the surface, everything is polished: fake smile, baked. But this is a completely rotten city — corrupt, incapable.

"What does [gold medals] have to do with people's life quality and civil society and freedom of speech?" he continues heatedly. "It's become a tighter, more nervous, more restricted, more watched [country]. The phones are tapped, the email accounts are being checked — it's become a police state."

Ai will also likely miss the Hirshhorn show. Among the pieces slated for that exhibit is "Rebar," a major new work that will be shown for the first time.

The piece returns to where it all began: Sichuan. Ai has spent the last two years collecting more than 200 tons of metal from the debris of the crumpled schools. The twisted, dirty rods have been straightened out to form perfect lines of metal. The message is clear: In China, traumatic history is hidden under sparkling surfaces. "It looks like new material has come from the factory. Perfect lines in an order as if nothing had happened," he explains.

Asked if he ever just hopes for a "normal life," Ai replies that he's "a very normal person." He gestures toward a cook preparing lunch in his kitchen and a couple of tan cats lounging lazily on the stairs. "I enjoy anything.... We have cats, all those dogs, I read the news. I don't care about popularity or heroic acts."

Then he becomes serious. "My act is not heroic, my act is very basic human dignity," he says. "I see a lot of support, which I really think is so important for humanity and for the dignity of life. We are all associated."

Times staff writer David Ng in Los Angeles contributed to this report. 

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